Empathy Check

I used to write a blog for Psych Central. Often I wrote about living well with mental illness and detailed how one can use meditation, movement and meaningful work to moderate or even successfully manage mood disorders. It was a lot like what I do here.

Every writer looks forward to feedback, so I was excited when someone would write a comment or send an email. One reader wrote, “I really hate your stuff. You always go on and on about how well you’re doing. It makes me sick.” It hit hard, because I’m sure this commenter wasn’t a troll. Those of us living well often lose sight of the struggle others wrestle with. We can get smug. We think if you just do what we do all will be OK. While the methods I write about have helped a lot of people, some honestly try and don’t get better.

While it takes a tremendous individual effort to overcome mental illness, the ability to fall back on the support of people who care for you is crucial. I’ve been blessed to have that. Some people don’t have that support. Their lonely efforts to live well with a mental illness must be herculean if they are to succeed. Keeping up the energy required just to get by can be exhausting.

It can be hard to get treatment just right. Adjunct therapies like the ones I write about can help a person’s chances at success, but medicine and talk therapy remain the primary treatments for most – and these can take a while to get right and prove their efficacy.

Others are treatment resistant. While the number of people who never respond well to any treatment may be small, although real, we have all been smacked down by the recurrence of debilitating moods when all seems well. Despite the success of therapies for most with mental illness, 50% of people with bipolar disorder have a relapse into a serious mood swing within two years finding stability.

The adjunct therapies I promote help other treatments become more successful. But even they can be challenging for some to implement. I write about how helpful meditation can be to manage mood disorders and how to do it in my book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis (please buy it here), but I do point out that you need to be fairly stable, at least for a little while, to safely learn how to meditate. A friend gave me a reality check when he said that if you can actually sit down and read a book about how to handle anxiety you’ve already won half the battle.

Those of us who do well must pause and listen to those who honestly try and still run into walls. We shouldn’t get too preachy, and in no way should we shift any blame for ill health onto people with mood disorders who fight the battle and sometimes fail. We all fail, and we all suffer. While I insist that you should never diminish the severity of your own suffering because others seem to suffer more, I must also insist that you not assume that what works well for you will work well for everyone. And you must never assume that those who don’t live fulfilling lives just aren’t trying hard enough.

It's central to my practice and writing that you are not responsible for having a mental illness, but you are responsible to do whatever you can to get better. If you find a therapy that works stick with it. We owe that to those who haven’t yet found a method that works for them. Some honestly try, over and over, and still suffer. If that’s you please hang in there. Call out people like me when we make it sound too easy, but look to us also as evidence that life can get better.

Mental illness can be cruel. Just when you think you’re beyond it it can rear up and take you down again. That’s when we most need to listen to each other without judgment and to reach out a hand to help. Empathy may be the most important, and most overlooked, of the qualities that make up our personalities. Like so much that makes us better we can practice that, too, and we can begin by turning to those who fight a fight similar to ours and simply being present. That may be the most healing therapy of all.